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File-based autobiographies after 1989 Roy, Catherine Karen

Abstract

This study analyzes four autobiographical accounts written after the fall of the Berlin Wall by former data subjects, i.e., by individuals who have been under the surveillance of the East German Stasi (Staatssicherheit). Following a suggestion by Cornelia Vismann, I refer to these texts as “file-based autobiographies.” The term reflects the fact that they were written in response to the opening of the Stasi archives and the passing of the Stasi Files Act, which allowed data subjects to access their files. By constructing narratives using files written and compiled by informers and secret police officials rather than relying on their own, personal memories, these data subjects challenge the traditional aesthetics of autobiographies and subvert the usual expectations of autobiographical reading. “File-based autobiographies" constitute nothing less than a new autobiographical sub-genre. Rather than offering a personal story that begins in early childhood and ends later in life, data subjects engage in a revision of their lives using files written by a hostile third party. The four case studies show how people under surveillance may need to draw on such documents, even if they are inaccurate, in order to support their claims of authenticity and thus fulfill the autobiographical pact. In this way, these autobiographers acquire and re-functionalize the hostile documents, thus challenging the original purposes for which the files were kept. They show that using their files not only results in unexpected memory processes, but is also a political and literary process that supports their personal agendas and targets particular audiences. Access to and subsequent use of their files gives them the authority to discuss their reaction to the opening of the Stasi files as well as the records themselves.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

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